Good teachers are equal to good parents in any civilized society. They are infinitely more important than politicians, civil servants, professionals, business people, media commentators, celebrities and sports stars all put together. (Good nurses come a very close second.) Yet they remain among the least valued, respected and rewarded for the amazingly vital work they perform. While concern about the quality of students enrolling in teacher education programs in our universities is warranted, it’s time to address the low status accorded the teaching profession. It also means asking some searching questions about how up-and-coming teachers are being taught in universities.
Over the years I’ve been privileged to teach some exceptionally bright and intellectually curious and imaginative students in universities in this country and overseas. Many of them are marvellously ambitious to enter professions in which they can contribute to making the world a better place. They usually look to the law, to graduate entry to the federal or state public services, to the professions, the media, or to business. They believe career trajectories are available in these areas that will, in due course, take them to (or near) the top. Not a few have succeeded over the years.
What is disappointing, however, is that few of these excellent young people have any interest in becoming teachers in our primary and secondary schools. Nothing could be further from their minds. They simply don’t see that encouraging the intellectual and moral development of young people is a profoundly effective way to help make the world a better place. Many of them would be far better teachers than they are ever likely to be as public servants, journalists, lawyers, professionals, politicians or whatever. Their inclusive and warm personalities, their ability to recognise hidden talents in others, their idealism and optimism, their openness to ideas old and new, their love for their academic subjects, and their physical and psychological energy would make them brilliant pedagogues. Yet they shun the vocation of teaching. Why?
There are two immediate answers to this question. First, there is a widely-held perception that teacher education programs in our universities are, at best, mediocre. There are reasons for this that must be addressed. Second, the work of teachers is widely misunderstood, and even contemptuously devalued, especially among certain right-wing politicians who should know better.
- Teaching degrees:
The academic courses currently available to potential teachers in our universities tend to echo courses that were taught in the old teachers’ colleges. These courses (sometimes unjustly) were regarded as the second-best entry point to the teaching profession. The preferred entry point was for graduates (usually in science, economics, the humanities and social sciences) who had then completed a postgraduate diploma of education.
Following the Dawkins reforms to tertiary education in the late 1980s, teachers’ colleges began being absorbed into universities. They brought with them a wide range of courses, nearly all of which were badged as Bachelor of Education (BEd) degrees. For all the good intentions behind many of the BEd programs, their focus was more on teacher training rather than on teacher educating. The aim was to turn out generalists with an exposure to a variety of pedagogical ideas that were then current (for example, from Dewey to Piaget, from Steiner to Montessori, etc.). They were inclined to eschew in-depth or specialist academic disciplinary studies while favouring a broad-brush liberal arts and sciences approach.
The BEd programs were in danger of missing the point that teachers can’t (and certainly shouldn’t) be trained. A good teacher is a very special person (and personality) who is intellectually in love with a particular discipline, or one or two related disciplines, and who is capable of revealing to their students that deep inside their nascent intellects there are things worth listening to, that are worthy of their trust, that are even sacred (to adapt the words of the poet e.e. cummings). There is an account by Nigel Nicolson of how, as small boys, he and his brother would go on walks by the river with Virginia Woolf. They would find interesting pebbles and bring them to her. She would marvel at the pebbles and hand them back to the boys as diamonds. That’s what good teachers do.
It’s time to ditch all the first-degree BEd programs across the universities. The educating of teachers should strictly begin at graduate level, only after graduates have achieved good Bachelors’ degrees preferably (although not exclusively) in a range of physical science, humanities and social science disciplines. Indeed, as in Finland (which arguably has the best schools in the world), priority should be given to teacher education candidates who already have Masters’ degrees in their disciplines, or even PhDs.
The educating of teachers should then extend over a minimum of two years, with extensive time spent observing and teaching under close observation and supervision in schools. (Specialist post-graduate medical programs can extend over half a dozen years.) This means that if universities are going to be serious about educating good teachers, they will have to establish special schools for that very purpose. Any academic teaching potential teachers should be simultaneously teaching students in those special schools – that is, they should be teaching by example, not in conventional lectures and seminars.
- The reality of teaching:
A toxic anti-intellectualism is souring the heart of contemporary Australian culture. This was on display when Coalition MP Andrew Laming made the particularly stupid claim that teachers have too many holidays and short working hours. He shares a widespread ignorance in Australia about the huge demands and challenges teachers face on a daily basis. Teaching is profoundly demanding – psychologically, physically and intellectually. Too many schools are being forced to become therapeutic communities, even correctional facilities, rather than educational institutions. They are under-resourced and grotesquely undervalued in a society that remains wilfully blind to the vitally important role they play in society and the economy.
It’s time for a radical change in the way this country prepares teachers for our schools and for giving them the financial rewards they deserve and the pedagogical resources they so badly need. We must also start honouring them as the profoundly important members of society that they are. Until this occurs Australia will remain an under-educated country heading backwards in a world that is rapidly advancing as a global knowledge market.
Allan Patience is a Melbourne academic who is very proud of his teacher son.